Students at the National Theatre Ballet School don’t fit a pre-conceived mould, according to Artistic Director Damian Smith, a proud Wonnarua man from the Upper Hunter Valley.
‘We don’t have the impossible expectations of many ballet schools or companies that you must all look like one other and all be cookie cutters. Here we have all shapes and sizes, and lengths and heights, and strengths and weaknesses, and we work with those qualities and develop upon them,’ Smith said.
Having danced for over 25 years with companies such as the Boston Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, Hamburg Ballet and New York City Ballet – including 18 years as Principal Dancer with the highly acclaimed San Francisco Ballet – Smith is intimately familiar with the challenges of a professional dance career.
‘Ballet is so competitive and very gruelling in many aspects, so our students have to have that passion. You won’t survive with just interest. There has to be passion and commitment,’ he said.
Preparing its students for life as well as teaching them how to dance professionally is central to the ethos of the National Theatre, a Registered Training Organisation where students are taught by professional teachers and graduate with a qualification.
‘We want to develop the students as human beings and give them all of those morals and working ethics, the best way to approach things and to be successful beyond the ballet studio – in other aspects of their professional life,’ Smith explained.
‘We also want to develop their individual qualities and have them reach their own individual best results,’ he added.
Auditions for the 2022 intake at the National Theatre Ballet School are being held in Melbourne on Sunday 28 August from 3-5pm, with additional auditions taking place around the country, and also in New Zealand.
Casting such a wide net helps ensure the student cohort is as diverse as possible, Smith said.
‘A lot of students don’t have the opportunity to travel or don’t have the financial backing to be able to come to Melbourne [to audition]. So this is a way for us to spread our wings, really, and see the talent in rural areas and other cities; to find talented students who are interested in coming to the National and giving them that opportunity.’
He’s also hoping to see an increase in male dancers as a result of the 2021 auditions. ‘It would be wonderful if we could see some males auditioning,’ Smith said.
HERITAGE AND FUTURE
Established in December 1936, the National Theatre teaches both drama and ballet, and is one of the oldest performing arts schools in the country. Its heritage-listed home in St Kilda boasts its own proscenium arch stage, on which students presents two to three performances each year.
As well as having a long history, the National also has a wide reach, Smith explains. ‘We are an old organisation with a great history, and we have an amazing alumni – people who have come through this organisation and have gone on to have careers all over the world.’
Such alumni include Jemima Scott (Royal New Zealand Ballet Company), Antony Pannell (West Australian Ballet), Nana Yamamoto (Victorian State Ballet), Steven Woodgate (The Australian Ballet), Kidikarn Wannasil (Bangkok Ballet Theatre), Emma Skinner (Atlanta City Ballet), and many more.
‘We don’t have the impossible expectations of many ballet schools or companies that you must all look like one other and all be cookie cutters.’Artistic Director Damian Smith
Simultaneously, the National is very much focused on the future – including training its dancers for every opportunity that may arise. One way this is being achieved is by encouraging greater collaboration between the National Theatre Drama School and the Ballet School.
‘We’re really trying to push the students outside their comfort zones, giving them broader opportunities for employment and also just encouraging them to collaborate with the other students,’ Smith explained.
‘For example, for dancers to use their voice is a very awkward thing for them to be introduced to at first, but eventually this will lead them into perhaps something that requires that skill and that experience – increasing their opportunities by giving them a broader spectrum of study.’
Once they graduate, students will become part of a globally connected cohort of dancers who once called Melbourne home, even if just for the three years of their study at the National Theatre Ballet School.
‘In the ballet world, it seems that anywhere you go in the world, you can find a connection – either people who trained here or somebody who knows somebody who went to the National Theatre. It really has this great legacy,’ Smith concluded.